Ministers count their chances of winning crown

Major's dramatic gamble provokes leadership battle
Click to follow
The Independent Online
John Major's backers were privately predicting a one-horse race last night for their candidate in the leadership stakes after the stalking horses refused to come forward and the Cabinet pledged loyalty to the Prime Minister.

But behind the public protestations of loyalty to Mr Major, senior Cabinet figures were calculating their chances of winning the crown if the Prime Minister, against all odds, falls at the first fence.

One scenario being discussed at Westminster is that Mr Major could be "killed" by abstentions on the first ballot, forcing him out of No 10. At that point, the big names would enter the race.

Michael Heseltine is a front runner to win, but there was growing support on the Euro-sceptic right wing for a "stop Hezza" campaign. They would back Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Employment, for the second ballot.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, would be expected to throw her hat in the ring for the second ballot, but might not survive to the third ballot.

"There could be a run-off between Heseltine and [Mi-chael] Portillo," one senior ministerial source said. "If that happens, it will be too close to call."

For Mr Major, calling the bluff of the backbench Euro-sceptics who have made his leadership a misery represents the biggest gamble of his career.

Bets are being made by Tory MPs on the chances of it all going wrong for him. The Cabinet contenders ruled themselves out of the race only as long as Mr Major is still running.

Mr Major's gamble, which is regarded at Westminster as the "suicide option", depends on his winning outright on the first ballot. "Don't forget what happened to [Margaret] Thatcher. People lied through their teeth," the source said.

"Don't expect anyone to admit they are not going to vote for the Prime Minister. But they are talking about putting up proper voting booths. It is going to be a secret ballot."

"I don't think he will get more than 40 per cent on the first ballot. He will have to drop out, leaving the field clear."

The danger for the Major camp is that they still do not know who may run as a stalking horse. Norman Lamont, bitter about being sacked, would be a serious threat, carrying weight with the Euro-sceptic "suicide option", depends on his winning outright on the first ballot. "Don't forget what happened to Thatcher. People lied through their teeth," the source said. "Don't expect anyone to admit they are not going to vote for the Prime Minister."

"I don't think he will get more than 40 per cent on the first ballot. He will have to drop out, leaving the field clear."

The danger for the Major camp is that it still does not know who may run as a stalking horse. Norman Lamont would be a serious threat, carrying weight with the Euro-sceptics.

But it is a high risk for Mr Lamont, still seeking a safe Tory seat to replace his Kingston-upon-Thames constituency which will go in boundary changes. Last night he was lying low, after running out of the members' lobby, refusing to answer questions about his intentions. He is expected to consult friends over the weekend, before deciding whether to run.

Mr Field's threat to challenge Mr Major could ease the pressure on Mr Lamont. Other jokers in the pack could emerge if no other stalking horses enter the field. These include Tony Marlow, a maverick Euro-sceptic, who was recently restored to the Tory whip after rebelling last year with eight colleagues.

John Carlisle, another outspoken right-winger and Euro-sceptic, could also stand as a stalking horse to mobilise the abstentions against Mr Major, to bring him down.

William Hill, the bookmakers, closed the betting last night after Mr Major's announcement, but the odds they had been offering were: Heseltine 7-4; Portillo 2-1; Clarke 11-4; Shephard 10-1; Dorrell 16-1; and 20-1 bar the rest.

A big question mark hangs over Mr Heseltine's health after his heart attack while on holiday in Italy in June 1993. But he has been energetic as ever, touring the world, selling British exports and the leadership is within his grasp. He would win the centre-left votes and, being a showman, would be seen as one of the few who could stand a chance of winning the election against Tony Blair's new-style Labour Party.

How far he could win over the right wing would depend on whether he could be persuaded to offer a referendum on a single European currency.

Mr Portillo is the champion of the hardline Thatcherite right, and the Euro-sceptic candidate. But he is regarded as too young and critics say he would split the party, rather than unite it.

Many of Mr Portillo's supporters would actually like Mr Major to stay until the next election because they know he has time and would like him to avoid leading the party to a likely defeat. But most believe that he would have to run if it came to it to demonstrate the strength of support behind his right-wing Euro-sceptic outlook.

Mrs Shephard is a Major ally, but would want to run if there was a risk that Mr Heseltine would have a free run against Mr Portillo. She could pick up centre-right votes, which Mr Portillo might fail to reach, but it is unlikely to be enough.

A key question is whether Kenneth Clarke, at one time the favourite to succeed Mr Major, would stand in an election.

Comments